H.R.C.’S Listening Tour: Sound, Fury, Shtick-but Signifying What?

“Do we want Hillary Clinton to be our next Senator?” Representative Michael McNulty asked the crowd at his July 9 fund-raiser, held in a basement-level ballroom at the Omni Hotel in Albany. With the faint scent of chlorine wafting from the indoor swimming pool situated nearby, the setting was arguably as cheesy as the cubes of cheddar arranged in mountains on the buffet tables. But by the look of Hillary Rodham Clinton, it might as well have been the balcony of Buckingham Palace, and herself a freshly married Diana about to accept her prince’s kiss. Planted on the stage between Mr. McNulty and Jerry Jennings, the flushed-faced mayor of Albany, the First Lady glowed with the modest brightness of a bride, because when the crowd roared, as it most lustily did, it roared for her.

Or maybe it was because she hadn’t screwed up all week; or because, after this event and a rain-drenched intermission “hello” to the audience of an outdoor-theater performance of Gypsy , she would be flying home-sorry, back-to Washington, where Democrats were already buzzing with how well the first swing of her noncampaign had gone. One strongly suspects that the world’s least scrutable tea leaf could be no harder to read than she is. But, in any event, she certainly seemed happy, as well she should have been. The First Lady’s maiden, three-day “listening tour” of central New York was vapid in its billing. It was often torturous in its unfolding. It was definitely circular in its logic: a laborious show of learning about issues in a state where Mrs. Clinton allegedly belongs because she is so deeply versed in its issues. And in terms of setting the stage for her Senate run, it was resounding in its success.

The trip succeeded in setting forth one advantageous visual after another, none more so than that of Mrs. Clinton strolling toward her candidacy on the arm of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan; a shot rendered no less effective for its clearly having been calculated right down to the genteel crook of the Senator’s elbow. It succeeded in garnering slavishly positive local press. (“First Lady Listens and Learns” gushed one upstate headline, presumably not dictated directly by Mrs. Clinton’s exploratory committee.) It succeeded in calling the bluff of the supposedly rabid New York press corps, whose collective tongue may have been tied by the fact that the really interesting Hillary questions, even ones that don’t directly involve crooked investments or oral sex, are so much more Jackie Collins than William Manchester. (“Over here, Mrs. Clinton! Are you hungry for power, or thirsty for revenge?”) It succeeded in diluting the venom of one of the most potentially poisonous issues Mrs. Clinton will face in the campaign to come.

Released amid the fever of her first “exploratory” week, the First Lady’s July 2 letter to the president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, in which she characterizes Jerusalem as the “eternal and indivisible capital of Israel,” forced her to take some hits for pandering to the Jewish vote and for backing off her earlier call for a Palestinian state. But those were nothing like the beating she would have taken were her views revealed on a slow news day, or in the heat of a Senate battle already joined.

But above all, the listening tour succeeded in keeping its own unwieldy irony balanced on its back. For this trip was nothing if not an effort at a great, loud projection of the First Lady’s small, quiet approach to her political invasion of New York. After all, the entire exercise had been expressly designed to deflate the idea of Mrs. Clinton as a carpetbagger, an empress, a know-it-all. Indeed, it had been designed to start the process of deflating the figure of the First Lady herself. “Most of what a Senate challenger has to worry about is getting known and getting some attention,” said Mandy Grunwald, one of the very few Friends of Hillary who are calling the shots on this candidacy. (Harold Ickes, the First Lady’s political enabler-in-chief; pollster Mark Penn; New York lawyer Susan Thomases; and the First Lady’s former chief of staff, Maggie Williams, in touch by telephone from her home in France, are the others.) But with the world press trailing her from one stage of her giant celebrity to the next, Mrs. Clinton’s first task was just the opposite. Already enormous in the national mind, she had to shrink herself down to the size of a Senate candidate.

Needless to say, smallness was never an actual quality of the First Lady’s itinerary, but it was always the operative fantasy.

The “listening events” were attended by hordes of reporters, but they were insistently characterized as small. “The First Lady is going to meet with New Yorkers in small groups, listening to their concerns,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman Howard Wolfson seemed to say whenever anybody asked him anything.

The First Lady had always been loved or loathed as a woman of huge ambitions hotly pursued, but she stated these ambitions as small, as in the sensible and obvious; the opposite of frightening. “I am now of the school of smaller steps,” she allowed at the forum held at the Bassett Healthcare Center in Cooperstown, filing her great big 1994 health care plan under the heading “A Lesson Learned.” She had trotted the globe as a larger-than-life figure, but her resultant observations seemed to be uniformly small. “I can always tell how poor a place I am in by the quality of the children’s teeth,” she told her audience at the State University of New York at Oneonta, which may have noted her tendency to say “git” instead of “get.”

Likewise, “my dad had never used a typewriter, let alone a computer,” related the policy wonk’s policy wonk to the audience at Bassett, as if her late father’s bewilderment to be greeted at a doctor’s office by an empty waiting room, a computer and a sign inviting him to punch in his name and press “enter” might be a reaction of her own. Even her newly stated policy differences with the Clinton Administration, which she seemed to issue at semi-regular intervals, like morphine from a drip, were, despite the clamor that greeted them, really quite small. If Mrs. Clinton were anyone other than a First Lady seeking public office during her husband’s Presidency, it would be her ever-developing debate with her own past self, and not her tomayto-tomahto duet with the President, that might spell political trouble.

How the revelation on Jerusalem squares with her previous views on the Palestinians is, for instance, a question that is well worth pressing. How she could possibly take a position on Jerusalem that differs from that of the State Department, when both Mr. Moynihan and Senator Chuck Schumer, among other Democrats and Republicans, have done precisely that, is a question hardly worth asking. And, of course, Mr. Schumer’s support of New York’s entry into the Northeast dairy compact has yet to be hailed as a major break with the Clinton Administration.

“I thought it was a test of the Heisenberg principle: the extent to which the act of observation alters what is being observed,” said Ann Lewis, a counselor to the President who moonlights as keeper of the Hillary Web site. “If you work very hard, you can connect with people; you can listen, and be seen to be listening.”

Of course, being seen to be listening is an act with all the naturalness of Styrofoam-and, by Day 3, the approximate spontaneity of in vitro fertilization. Conducted with hand-picked panels before slightly less hand-picked audiences, the “listening sessions” were not quite the Orwellian groupthinks that the monicker suggests, but the intellectual breadth of the discussions did call to mind Dorothy Parker’s famous crack about the Katharine Hepburn performance that ran the gamut from A to B.

What, one wondered time after time, can the First Lady possibly be scribbling so earnestly on her notepad about what she is being told? (“Note to self: These people are for education …” )

Then again, when you are a human lightning rod who lives in the White House but wants to be a senator of New York, George Orwell might be the perfect message guy. Just look at the three main thoughts from last week: Big is small. Dull is good. The extraordinary is ordinary.

“At some point,” said Ms. Grunwald, “the novelty will wear off, and there will be some semblance of normalcy.”

The novelty of candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is, in fact, already wearing off. The normalcy of it, however, is nowhere in sight. H.R.C.’S Listening Tour: Sound, Fury, Shtick-but Signifying What?